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Fading memories of a promised land

Print edition : Oct 19, 2007 T+T-
A group of Khalistani terrorists after their surrender in Bhikiwind in 1992.-ASIT JOLLY

A group of Khalistani terrorists after their surrender in Bhikiwind in 1992.-ASIT JOLLY

Fifteen years after the end of the war for Khalistan, have the ghosts of the past been put to rest?

A group of

HONEY, his friends call him, with no irony in their voices. Its a fantastic business, says the tall, heavily-muscled young beekeeper, his skin tanned as leather from hard work under the blazing Punjab summer sun, you should think about investing in it.

Fifteen years ago, Navtej Singh was one of the Khalistan Commando Forces (KCF) leading operatives, and for a time the administrative head of its operations out of Pakistan. From 1981 to 1993, the war he fought in claimed the lives of 21,043 people 11,594 civilians, 8,003 terrorists and 1,746 security force personnel. Now, dozens of men like Navtej Singh, fortunate enough to have survived the carnage, are attempting to put their forgotten war behind them and rebuild their lives.

Navtej Singh joined the KCF as a teenager. His brother had joined the Khalistan movement soon after Operation Bluestar in 1984; many of his closest friends were members of terror groups. I used to be detained for questioning whenever anything happened, he recalls, and the police would often torture me. False cases were filed to compel me to inform on my friends. I finally decided to fight. Just what he did in the course of that fight Navtej Singh will not discuss. Under intense pressure from the Punjab Police, and fearing for his life, he fled to Pakistan in 1992. We stayed in a safe house in Lahore, he recalls, and had almost no access to the city. The Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] feared some of us might be Research and Analysis Wing [RAW] agents. The atmosphere was rife with suspicion, and on one occasion there was a shootout between various Khalistan groups. The next day, it was reported in the newspapers as dacoity.

As the Khalistan movement began to disintegrate, Navtej Singh returned to India. He attempted to secure asylum in the United States using a fake passport, only to be deported after spending several months in a New York prison. In 1999, he was arrested on charges of conspiring to kill former Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. He was eventually acquitted of the charge but sentenced to five years in prison for possessing illegal firearms. The weapon was planted, he insists, and the charges were ridiculous. But no one would defend me, until a courageous local lawyer took up my case.

Since his release, Navtej Singh has spent his time fighting off the 17 criminal cases filed against him and rebuilding his life. I had to sell a good part of my land to pay my legal fees, he recalls, and have sold samosas for a living. My wife and I ran a roadside restaurant, and she worked as a teacher for Rs.1,700 a month. Hard work has got us where we are today.

I do not regret what I did, Navtej Singh says, for I fought for a principle. I never made a paisa out of the struggle, even though I sacrificed the best years of my life for it. We were young and angry and willing to die for a just cause. Today, as a political activist, I hope to achieve the same things but by persuading people through ideas, not guns.

Strange, isnt it? Navtej Singh concludes, talking of his political work for the small Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) faction led by Simranjit Singh Mann, which has proved a magnet for many. The Khalistan movement, when I joined it, was just as it is now, a few men talking in a room.

On the day Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Manjinder Singh Issi was celebrating the sale of his family harvest with six friends and five bottles of liquor. He had no idea of the gathering storm that would, within months, transfigure the lives of millions in and outside Punjab.

Back in 1984, Issi was a student at the Government College in Malerkotla. The members of his family, which owned a 10-hectare farm near the south Punjab town of Dhuri, were supporters of the centre-right SAD leaders ranged against Jarnail Singh Bhindranwales neoconservative movement. On one occasion, Issi marched to the Golden Temple in support of former Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala.

In college, he met the lecturer who changed his life: Professor Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, a top Khalistan Liberation Front (KLF) operative who has been sentenced to death for his role in a 1993 bombing intended to assassinate Congress leader Maninderjit Singh Bitta. Bhullar introduced Issi to a new world, a world in which Operation Bluestar and the state-organised massacres of Sikhs that followed Indira Gandhis assassination drove hundreds of young men to give their lives to the struggle for Khalistan.

Issis activities earned him disapproval from his family and reprisal from the police. He was first arrested in 1985 on charges of associating with terrorists and detained again soon after his release. My family suffered terribly, Issi recalls, for no fault of theirs. Our home was ransacked, forcing my family to flee.

Soon after his second term in prison, Issi joined a terror cell led by one of Bhullars friends, Jagroop Singh Kalakh. By 1990, his name figured regularly on the Punjab Polices intelligence records as a key confidant of KLF commander Gurjant Singh Buddhsinghwala. While Issi refuses to discuss the criminal cases still pending against him, the Punjab Police claims he was involved in almost two dozen major terrorist crimes, including the 1990 assassination of the States former Finance Minister Balwant Singh, an attempt to assassinate former Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) president Gurcharan Singh Tohra, and a February 1991 bombing directed at the then Director General of Police (DGP) D.S. Mangat.

One case Issi is willing to discuss, though, is his October 1991 kidnapping of Romanian diplomat Liviu Radu: a case in which the prosecution collapsed after the victim failed to give evidence. KLF leaders in Pakistan, he says, ordered the kidnapping to secure the release of Harjinder Singh Jinda and Sukhjinder Singh Sukha, who were later hanged for assassinating General A.S. Vaidya, the former Chief of the Army Staff. I was fed up with the Khalistan movement by then, he says, and wanted out. However, I was told that I could only leave after Jinda and Sukha could take my place. I was against the operation from the outset because I knew Radu was too unimportant a target for India to concede our demands.

He was right: Radu had to be released unharmed. With funds from the KLF, Issi relocated to Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh where he set up a transport business. For the next eight years, Issi shipped mangos from Dehradun to Mumbai and lemons from Madhya Pradesh to Maharashtra. In March 1999, the Punjab Police finally caught up with him.

Weeks after he came out of jail in 2002, Issi was elected sarpanch of his village: no one had the courage, or inclination, to stand against him. Earlier this month, he was appointed a senior functionary of Simranjit Singh Manns SAD-Amritsar faction. Much of his time, however, goes into running the truck business he founded and managing the family farm.

Hum josh mein ladey, na ki hosh mein, he says we fought in anger, not in our senses.

Now, through my political work, perhaps we can achieve at least some of what we were willing to die for.

By 1991, Issi was among a growing group of Khalistan terrorists who had decided that their cause was not worth dying for. He participated in a top-secret negotiation held by the Union government and Khalistan terror groups a dialogue that its architects say came within a hairs breath of success but was ultimately sabotaged by ISI. According to Issis account, and that of former Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) Joint Director Maloy Krishna Dhar, the deal would have involved the rehabilitation of terrorists and the formation of a government which included their leadership. Had the deal succeeded, thousands of lives could have been saved.

Prime Minister Chandra Shekhars secret search for peace began within weeks of his taking office in 1991. D.S. Pannu, a long-standing confidant of the Prime Minister who went on to serve as Indias Ambassador to Burkina Faso, was among the key proponents of talks. Union Minister of State for Home Subodh Kant Sahay was ordered to open contact with key leaders of Khalistan terror groups.

Dhar, who had made a name for himself operating against Naga and Mizo terror groups in the northeastern region as well as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), was recruited as a Special Assistant to the Union Home Minister. He focussed his attentions on Sohan Singh, the head of a Pakistan-based coalition of terror groups called the Second Panthic Committee. The ageing Sohan Singh, Dhar knew from his informants, believed that terrorism had outlived its utility.

I.B. agents helped Sohan Singh cross the India-Pakistan border near Jammu and make his way to Ludhiana for a series of meetings with terror commanders active in the State. Elements of Gurbachan Singh Manochahals Bhindranwale Tiger Force and Gurjant Singh Budhsinghwalas KLF joined in the dialogue, as did another top Pakistan-based terror commander, Pritam Singh Sekhn. Pakistan-based leaders of the Dal Khalsa, using fake passports, also made their way across the Wagah border in Punjab.

Held in I.B.-run safe houses in Ludhiana and Amritsar, Sahays meetings with the terror commanders went better than anyone had expected. We were soon very close to a deal, recalls Issi, but as we tried to get other groups on board, we began to sense that something was going wrong. Wadhawa Singh of the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), Paramjit Singh Panjwar of the KCF and Daljit Singh Bittu of the Sikh Students Federation all then based in Pakistan dug in their heels and refused to go along with the deal.

Politics had not a little to do with their rejection of the dialogue process. Pakistan-based commanders such as Wadhawa Singh feared that Budhsinghwala and Manochahal would seize power and thus leave them out in the cold. The Damdami Taksal, a neoconservative religious order that gave birth to the BKI, also felt it would be marginalised by its clerical rivals in Punjab and that the peace deal would eventually lead to pro-Khalistan radicals rejoining the ranks of the mainstream SAD.

But, Dhar argues, Pakistans opposition to peace was the key factor in undermining the dialogue. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her ISI advisors, he says, were determined not to let peace succeed. Pakistans covert war in Jammu and Kashmir had exploded in 1990, and its establishment understood that the Punjab conflict tied down our troops, and threatened our logistical lines into Jammu and Kashmir.

Indias covert services attempted to strengthen the pro-dialogue groups by pumping in funds to help them buy the support of their rank and file. Efforts were also made to bring pressure to bear on leaders through kinship and clan networks in Punjab. However, with much of the Khalistan leadership on Pakistans soil, and with terror groups dependent on its patronage for weapons and ammunition, the ISI proved to have greater leverage. The ISI defeated us, plain and simple, Dhar says. After the rejectionists executed a near-successful attempt to assassinate Sahay, the negotiations finally fell apart.

There was no trust left, recalls Issi, and since it became clear that the pro-dialogue groups could not deliver an end of violence, New Delhi lost interest. A total of 5,265 people 2,591 civilians, 2,177 terrorists and 497 security force personnel were killed in what turned out to be the worst-ever year of Khalistan violence. Wadhawa Singhs BKI, which had emerged as the most feared terror group in Punjab, was responsible for much of the carnage. Fatalities fell to 3,883 the following year, as increasingly aggressive Indian counter-terrorism strategies kicked in, declining further to 871 in 1993 and just 78 in 1994. Former Punjab Director-General of Police K.P.S. Gill, who had been removed from office as a goodwill gesture to the terrorist groups that had joined the dialogue, spearheaded this successful offensive.

May 1984: Jarnail

Some key figures in the dialogue lived to see the peace. Sohan Singh, whose son Swaran Singh Boparai is now Vice-Chancellor of the Punjab University, was arrested in 1993. Both Issi and Bitta remain active in Sikh neoconservative politics, albeit in two bitterly opposed factions which charge each other with betraying the Khalistan movement. Earlier this year, Bitta was charged with sedition after making inflammatory pro-Khalistan statements. Others were less fortunate. Budhsinghwala was killed in a shootout at Ludhianas Model Town in 1992, the same neighbourhood where some of the peace talks were held.

A year later, Manochahal was also shot dead. Sekhon is thought to have died of natural causes in Lahore eight years ago, while Panjwar, Wadhawa Singh, his brother Mehal Singh, and the International Sikh Youth Federations Lakhbir Singh are still in Pakistan. Bar Mehal Singh, the others figure on the list of top 20 terrorists whose extradition India has unsuccessfully demanded from Pakistan. As New Delhi ponders the prospects of opening negotiations with Jammu and Kashmir terror groups such as the Hizbul Mujahideen, the lessons of the 1991 dialogue weigh heavy on the minds of Indian strategists.

Negotiating with some factions of terrorists, says the Institute of Conflict Managements Director, Ajai Sahni, encourages other groups to raise the stakes by escalating violence. Moreover, the fact is that Pakistan holds a veto over the process. However, officials involved in the 1991 talks note that even in its failure, it helped sharpen divisions between Khalistan terror groups and precipitated murderous factional infighting which helped the Punjab Polices final, decisive offensive. We need to bring the full facts about 1991 out in the open, Dhar says, and to discuss its lessons or we are doomed to make the same mistakes again and again.

Soon after Gyan Singh Leel emerged from his 17 years in prison, three of them on death row, he sat with a small group of friends in Ludhiana, listening to a virtuoso sitar performance. The one thing I have ever really wanted to do, he said, crying quietly, it is to learn to play the sitar.

Leel was one of a group of young men who, on August 21, 1985, pumped bullets into the body of the centrist SAD leader Harcharan Singh Longowal. The architect of a peace deal with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Longowal was seen by most in Punjab as the last hope of a peaceful resolution of the conflict and by his neoconservative detractors as a traitor. Leels bullet, it is believed, hit Longowal on the chest.

While Leel was hailed as a hero by the Khalistan movement, both he and his family were to pay a horrible price for his actions. While most of the other perpetrators escaped, Leel was captured by enraged Longowal supporters and beaten.

As the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) pursued its investigations, Leel spent 13 years in jail under trial, for seven of which he was never once presented before a judge. He was then sentenced to death, a punishment the Supreme Court commuted to a life term in 2001. When Leel finally emerged from jail that year, he had spent a total of 17 years in jail; he was just 19 when he was arrested.

Perhaps I was the lucky one, he says, counting off the names of the others who fired on Longowal that day. Jarnail Singh Halwara: he is dead. So is Charanjit Singh Talwandi. Palwinder Singh: dead. Mahesh Inder Singh Gehal now him, I think he got asylum somewhere in the West.

Leels family suffered, too. Police raids drove his family out of their home in the village of Pohed. His brother, Bir Inderpal Singh Navtej Singhs mentor was shot dead in an encounter with the Punjab Police. So, too, was his brother-in-law, Sarwan Singh. His father, Gurdev Singh, disappeared a disappearance some believe was in fact an extra-judicial murder authored by the police.

Could the cause that destroyed so many lives revive again? As the continuing arrests of terror operatives, and recoveries of arms and explosives, demonstrate, the Khalistan movement may be comatose but it is far from dead.

Since 1995, police records show, over 100 civilians have lost their lives in attacks by Khalistan terror groups. Just in June, the Punjab Police arrested two alleged Bhindranwale Tiger Force of Khalistan operatives, Swaranjeet Singh and Gurcharan Singh Kala, on charges of planning to assassinate Piara Singh Bhaniarawala, a Dalit preacher whom conservative Sikhs consider to be a heretic.

Still, there is little sign that the Khalistan movement enjoys any real mass support. Even the SAD-Amritsar, which is studious in avoiding calls to violence, was decimated in the last Punjab Assembly Elections.

Young people dont care about our cause these days, Leel says. Theyre too busy getting stoned, or plotting their way to America or Australia. And, who knows, perhaps its better that way.

I have done enough work to last several lifetimes, Leel ends, so nowadays, mein mauj karda hun: I enjoy life.